The following is a detail from Joel Gascoyne’s 1793 map of the “Parish of St Dunstan, Stepney, alias Stebunheath” showing the marshy peninsula that made up the south of the parish.
In keeping with other early maps, Gascoyne’s map names the Isle of Dogs as only a small area compared to how we now know it. At its centre is “The Chappell”, built on what was then the highest area of the Island – higher than the high tide of the Thames and thus not prone to flooding. Before the construction of the river banks (or ‘walls’) this area was literally an island in the Thames at high tide.
Its dry situation meant not only that it could be built upon but that trees would grow there, as can be seen in this c1680 painting made at the top of the hill in Greenwich Park by Dutch painter, Johannes Vorstermans (anglicized as John or Jan Vorsterman).
Little is known about the chapel or church at the site. In 1901, Walter Besant in his ‘East London’ described a visit to the Isle of Dogs:
Half a century ago this island was not only absolutely destitute of the great manufacturing establishments which now belong to it, but it was almost entirely without inhabitants. The only points of interest it possessed were the ruins of an ancient chapel, whose origin was shrouded in mystery, and its singularly rich pasture-land, which was celebrated for curing horses and cattle of distemper.
The Survey of London (Athlone Press):
The earliest reference to a chapel in the marsh dedicated to St Mary dates from 1380. This chapel may have been the old one, or perhaps a new chapel of ease [a chapel for parishioners who lived too far from the parish church] had been erected for the marsh-dwellers.
The Survey of London says also that this was likely the site of a small hamlet, with up to 80 inhabitants. However…
On Lady Day 1449 the river burst through the wall opposite Deptford, and it was almost certainly this flood which led to the hamlet’s abandonment.
On later maps, ‘The Chappell’ became the ‘Chapel House’, a collection of farm buildings with neat rows of plants and trees. Chapel House Street and Estate are named after the farm.
Tantalizingly, the Survey of London, suggests there may once have been a substantial manor house south of the Chapel House:
The house seems to have occupied a moated site – no doubt that of the ruined manor house – south of the Chapel House. Of unknown date, it may have incorporated the old structure to a greater or lesser extent. Norden’s Map of Middlesex (1593) shows the house [named as Isle of Dogs Ferm] as having the status of a gentleman’s or knight’s residence.
The farm was mentioned in a couple of news articles, the first published in 1821, and the second in 1865 (when much of the Island was still farmland):
Remains of the chapel were still visible in the late 1850s, and this sketch was made just before the buildings were demolished and cleared to make room for Millwall Docks (opened in 1868)
If you are curious about where the chapel was, its location is shown on Ordnance Survey maps: under the water of Millwall Docks Graving (or Dry) Dock:
Under the water of what is now known as Clipper’s Quay:
Its elevated position is obvious if you stand close by in East Ferry Road, more commonly known by me and other Islanders as Farm Road!